Within India’s Capital, New Delhi, a rape is reported every 22 minutes. After decades of a severe rape problem, it finally seems like the Government is trying solve the problem.On April 4th this year, three men convicted of gang raping a photojournalist in Mumbai were sentenced to death. This was a disgusting act that not only warrants the punishment of the perpertrators, but also highlights the severity of India’s rape problem. However, the application of the death penalty here does show that the Government is finally taking a harder line on rape offences. These men are the first to be sentenced to death under the new laws passed after the gang rape of a student in New Delhi in 2012. The new law, which has implemented a minimum of life imprisonment for repeat rape offenders and a possibility of the death penalty, has been subject to a lot of criticism since its passing. Even multiple woman’s rights groups in India have spoken out against the law, with many favouring rehabilitation of convicts instead of the death penalty. Although the death penalty is the most extreme of all punishments and should only be used on rare occasions, if at all, looking at the context of rape within India, it is almost understandable that the government has decided to implement such extreme laws to prevent rape.
Rape has been historically engrained into Indian criminal culture. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, rape was extremely common amongst the violence that ensued at the time. Hindu men would regularly rape Muslim woman, also Sikh and Hindu woman were regularly raped by Muslim men. There were an estimated 100,000 rapes and kidnappings during this turbulent process, a shocking statistic considering the optimism in Ghandi’s fight for independence. This may appear too far in the past for some to blame on the current state of India’s rape crime, yet this is certainly not the case. What this did was cement rape not just as a tool of oppression and domination of women, but also as a way for religious men to assert that they have the superior belief.
Within the infamous Kashmir conflict, rape and mass rape was reportedly widespread, even used frequently by the Indian armed forces. The most famous example of this was the Kunan Poshpura incident in 1991, were it was reported that soldiers of the Rajputana Rifles raped up to 100 women between the ages of 13 to 75. Rape has also been reported to be frequently used by terrorist groups within the area such as the HuJI and the Hizbul Muhajideen. The use of rape in this conflict must have derived some influence from the use of rape within the partition, and has only helped make rape more prevalent within India by almost justifying it as a political act.
These historical incidents of rape which have been committed by Indian and Pakistani people have been ingrained into the two nation’s respective cultures, and has become a huge problem within the respective states. Tackling issues such as these which are so widespread requires laws which have to come down hard on those convicted, which is precisely what India is implementing.
The use of the death penalty is often frowned upon within a democracy, yet the use of this punishment could very well act as a deterrent for rape offenders. It may seem more compassionate to favour rehabilitation over punishment, yet this softer attitude towards offenders would unfortunately not act as a sufficient repellent, particularly considering the frequency of attacks in the nation. This pared with police recording more rapes, particularly in New Dehli, can pave the way for a massive crackdown on offenders, and hit the problem right at its core. This is not saying that the death penalty should be used more frequently, but life imprisonment should certainly become the regular punishment for any man who is convicted, with the death penalty being used only in extreme cases. Also the attitudes amongst the officials of India are not just evolving slowly, they are radically changing. Mumbai officials, who have been shocked by the rape occurrences in Delhi, have taken action to ensure that rape does not reach such a drastic level within the city. They now see rape on par with acts of terrorism, with the recent case in which the three culprits were sentenced to death, being an example of this new attitude. Mumbai officials even assigned the infamous public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikham to the case, who is famous for obtaining 628 life sentences and 30 death sentences across his career.
Moral conflict always comes into the question when the death penalty is used, yet within this particular context, it would seem that India has made the right choice to introduce these strict laws. India within the next few years could hopefully see a negative correlation in the frequency of rape within not just cities, but the country as a whole. Pakistan, a country in which rape is arguably even more of an issue, hopefully will look to the laws implemented in India and encourage a similar set of laws within their own state, yet due to their restrictive laws on woman and hostile relationship with India, this is extremely unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, India’s attitude and dealings towards acts of rape within the nation are changing for the better, and hopefully these new laws will deter offenders whilst also changing the national attitude towards rape, raising needed awareness on the issue and helping Indian woman feel more secure, particularly within cities.
The Editor’s Reply
Fewer issues are quite as decisive as Capital Punishment, and I would hate for a debate over it to go amiss. I am in fact opposed to the death penalty across the board. Not because I think all crimes are equal but because this is the only way you can oppose Capital Punishment. Normally I’m not one to blunt issues such as this with a sweeping attitude but this is different. Indeed, this topic could easily warrant an entire article of it’s own so I will try and keep this response to the confines of India.
I understand that rape is such a severe problem in India that it needs a very strong deterrent. But immediately when I see the word ‘deterrent’ I am sceptical. Mainly because there isn’t any compelling evidence that it deters. The underlying cause of the problem needs to be addressed instead. Though I do admit this is a more compelling counter argument in cases of petty crime or drug use as many are driven to those by poverty so the benefits out way the cost – even with the threat of death. With rape in India, the cause is not especially clear. I don’t think a historical tendency is quite enough explanation and even if it was, the death penalty doesn’t seem to be the answer. If it is so bizarrely engrained in the culture then it needs to be removed and through education and a dramatic improvement in the criminal justice system. The latter, even without the prospect of death, would at least mean many more cases could be sufficiently investigated. I’m sure the likelihood of getting away with rape is a great incentive for these barbarous people. After all, there is only a 24% chance of conviction for rape in India.
Rape is one of the most inexcusable and horrifying acts human beings can commit to one another and its historic use as a weapon should make anyone sick with rage. But, even if indisputably guilty, I still don’t think the death penalty is warranted. I’m not going to justify my position here because you don’t need to agree with that sentiment. The key phrase was ‘even if indisputably guilty’ – something that is very hard to determine, especially with a less than perfect justice system. This, combined with granting the state power of taking a human life, is an alarming prospect. Then throw in public opinion into the court case.
One thing that particularly terrified me was the decision, as you mentioned, to assign Ujjwal Nikham to the case of the suspected rapist in Dehli – essentially guaranteeing a conviction. When public opinion meets the judicial system, emotion overshadows rational deliberation and the rule of law is dramatically undermines. Nonetheless, even the most rigorous judiciary may struggle to mitigate the interference of public opinion in certain cases – exactly why the death penalty should not be an option. The chance of executing an innocent person is always far too great and is even greater in the Indian justice system given the slapdash nature of investigations and evidence collection.
I could go on, but I feel I’ve made my case clear so instead I will leave you with a quote from the Human Rights attorney, Stephen Bright:
“It can be argued that rapists deserve to be raped, that mutilators deserve to be mutilated. Most societies, however, refrain from responding in this way because the punishment is not only degrading to those on whom it is imposed, but it is also degrading to the society that engages in the same behaviour as the criminals.”